The Dead Heart

“Since Australia does nothing by halves, we may well claim that no more inhospitable or useless tract of arid soil exists anywhere else on the world. It is just sand, sand, sand – no oasis, no palms, no nothing – except sand. Such is the Simpson Desert. Anybody can have it for nothing, if they’ll only just cart it away.

Early in the year 1936 a most amazing thing happened to the Simpson Desert – a shower of rain fell on it.

…A son of the desert fringe, 55 years of age, born at Quorn, South Australia, he knew all the tricks of the terrain. He knew that in the hot sands lay millions of seeds, dormant for years, ready to germinate when moisture at last awakened them from sleep.” – The Red Heart (Frank Clune)

The Simpson Desert is a truly unique part of Australia with Charles Sturt writing that “…the ridges extended northwards in parallel lines beyond the range of vision, and appeared as if interminable. To the Eastward and Westward they succeeded each other like waves of the sea”. From a European settler’s point of view it was one of the most difficult and unforgiving places to explore, with many trying and up until 1936, all failing. Over the past few days while hiding out in the air conditioning as the heat seared well above the 50 degrees mark in the sun, I began reading about the explorers who have attempted to cross the Simpson Desert on foot over the years. Although I have lived in Birdsville my whole life (bar the years at boarding school, university, and galavanting around parts of Australia and the world), like many people from the area I have never actually crossed the desert, nor do I know much about it and its history. I am however slowly gaining an understanding of its history and culture through books and speaking with people who have ties with it.

Here in Birdsville outside the pub, we have this monument that reads something like ‘Ted Colson and Peter crossed the Simpson Desert in 1936’. It was however only just before New Year that I actually took a moment to read what it said and only thanks to my brother did I realise that 2011 was 75 years since this happened. After thinking about what this meant I thought that we had missed a great opportunity in acknowledging this important part of Australia’s history, and so I decided that before I crossed the desert I would try and learn as much as I could about the history of it both European and Indigenous.

A particularly interesting note that I found was how the place got its name Simpson. It appears that after surveying the desert from the air in 1929 Cecil Madigan approached the president of the Geographical Society at the time, Mr. A. A. Simpson who said “he would not object to having his name attached to so inhospitable region…”, and thus it is now mapped as the Simpson Desert. In his book ‘Crossing the Dead Heart’ Madigan writes that “At the close of this expedition I said there seemed to be nothing to warrant the expenditure of any further effort in exploration of this desert as it contained nothing but sandridges, and all that was to be found there could be seen round its borders”. Thankfully Madigan later revised this perspective and indeed decided that a wealth of information could be gained by walking across it and as such set about doing so.

At the same time though a chap by the name of Edmund (Ted) Colson also had a similar idea, but was waiting for a season good enough to ensure success and a safe return. In Ted’s favour was the fact that he lived on the Western edge of the Simpson Desert at a place called Blood’s Creek, and could drop everything when the time was right and the feed was good for the camels. In his book ‘The Red Heart’ Frank Clune writes that Colson had been waiting for the right time for 2 decades, and when the time came he and his aboriginal companion Peter Ains saddled the 5 camels (including one named Walter), organised rations and set off with the motto of “Poeppel’s Peg or perish”. While reading the book I enjoyed the comment of Colson’s “freedom from imagination” as he named the lakes between the sandhills Lake One, Lake Two, Lake Three and so on, with any offshoots being called One A etc. He eventually passed through the worst of the desert, unfortunately missing the post of Poeppel’s corner on the way (which he found on the return journey and realised they had missed it by only 300 yards) and then on to Birdsville where he then “…set out, after two days rest and consuming a few quarts of beer freely bestowed on him by the hospitable Birdsvillers, on his return journey across the desert to his home…”. Personally the fact that he set out after just 2 days rest makes me a little jealous (even if they were riding camels most of the way), as I can only assume I’ll still be walking with bandy legs and in a state of utter exhaustion. I am however given a glimmer of hope as I too will be taking along my very own Walter to help me over the dunes when one foot no longer goes in front of the other.

If you’re a frequent visitor to The Long Walk Home and have read “Apparently time flies” you’ll know about the stick my brother made for me from a Christmas tree that didn’t quite pass the test for our 2011 Christmas. In recognition of the first recorded crossing of the Simpson Desert I have dubbed the stick ‘Walter’, after the camel which did the most work on Ted and Peter’s crossing, however I am yet to decide whether Walter shall be knighted and thus become Sir Walter. I am also contemplating if there is a need to build a shoe for him to increase the surface area at the bottom to aid in traction when the sand becomes soft. Perhaps people out there have some ideas? Maybe the knighting can happen at the Birdsville Pub when I’m finished crossing sandhills.

Just a quick side step here to give you the latest news on the walk itself. The first week with Michael’s training expertise was great, mostly air conditioned which was a bonus considering the heat we were facing. Donations are still coming in which is great news with the total now up over $700, and views of the website are also over 700 (THANKS). Sponsors are coming together so keep an eye out for updates on these soon, and I am looking at organising a fundraiser in Adelaide in March so if you are around the more the merrier! More details to come on that one… 

So now that you know Chevy and Walter, the logical procession would mean next up is Casino. 3 years at uni has left me slightly brainwashed and as such you will all know her as Casino rather then her real name. Sometimes when I speak of her I revert to just Cas, which makes me seem a little less odd to the uninformed public. That introduction however will have to wait as I now bid you farewell from a much cooler Birdsville, where the temperature is back in the 30’s and where windows and doors are being opened to let the ‘cool breeze’ in.

PS. Does anyone have any information on the first person to cross the Simpson Desert on foot?

If you have made it this far … well done and THANKS! Just in case you are struggling to contain your excitement of Walter, pictures are coming soon and you can print them off to stick on your fridge if you like 🙂


5 thoughts on “The Dead Heart

    • Without getting into the technical debate of whether a trek is supported or unsupported, Bonython & McCubbin were most likely the first whitefellas to walk across the desert – certainly they were the first recorded to do so, as far as I can tell. Their trip, in a NNW to SSE direction, was supported with air drops of water.

      Of course Aborigines were definitely capable of such a west/east or east/west journey across the desert, particularly in good seasons and in 1886 David Lindsay utilized the network of native wells to cross from Dalhousie to Poeppel Corner and return.

      I have often wondered if the Afghan cameleers on Madigan’s 1939 Expedition – Jack Bejah & Nur Mahommet Moocha (Nurie) – and Aborigine Andy, actually walked rather than riding the camels. From a cameleers perspective, I strongly suspect that they walked the entire distance (certainly in the dunefields), as it is far more sensible & practical to lead a string of packcamels across a dune by foot, rather than riding. Also, in 1939 it was more ‘culturally acceptable’ that the workers walked alongside the camels rather than riding on them.
      Also, since 1976, dozens & dozens of people have walked alongside the camels of the Outback Camel Company during its 19 crossings of the desert from various points in the west, north-west and south-east, including via the geographical centre. As per Madigan in 1939, we need a camel to carry water, food and provisions rather than people!

      • Hi Andrew,
        Thanks for your comment. I really need to rack your brain for everything you know about the desert. I will look up the names you have provided and read up on them. I certainly take my hat off to those who have crossed the desert unsupported.

        I initially thought madigan and co walked but after reading crossing the dead heart I tend to agree that bejah, nurie and Andy were probably the only ones to walk most of the way. It really is quite fascinating when you start learning about the desert. I can’t believe it has taken 24 years to get this perspective. Better late then never though.


  1. Yes, I think Walter needs a boot and should be knighted upon completion. You get to walk the desert with two feet. He has to do it with one….

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